Minnal Murali film may be a tribute to the Hollywood superhero genre and made on a larger budget than is the norm with Malayalam cinema, but it is also everything that the Malayalam New New Wave of the past decade is loved for across India.
Tovino Thomas’ superpower is his super-charm. Apparently that is not enough to save the village of Kurukkanmoola from grave danger, so director Basil Joseph in collaboration with writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew have transformed him into Jaison Varghese who is struck by lightning one night, develops superhuman strength and rechristens himself Minnal Murali (Lightning Murali), saviour of this little hamlet in the Kerala countryside.
Until this sensational turn of events, Jaison is an ordinary hard-working Indian youngster who fancies himself to be a cool dude, helps in his father’s tailoring business and dreams of leaving the country for greener pastures in the Western hemisphere where he believes he will make big money since “tailors are in great demand in America – you see, no one knows how to sew there since they wear only readymade garments”. If you get a stitch in your stomach from laughing at that rural Indian image of the US, be warned: there is more of that earthy wit to come.
Jaison matures overnight when he realises that his people need him. It takes a while for him to get there though. Jaison’s journey from over-grown baby to full-grown messiah of his homeland is bursting at the seams with humour, heartbreak – not all his own – and high drama.
Basil’s film may be a tribute to the Hollywood superhero genre and made on a larger budget than is the norm with Malayalam cinema, but it is also everything that the Malayalam New New Wave of the past decade is loved for across India: universally themed yet culturally rooted, visually beautiful yet not allowing its packaging to swallow its soul, observant and insightful as much about the small community in which it is set as it is about the human condition.
In Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC parlance, Minnal Murali is a superhero origin story. The fight sequences are well-conceived and executed, but the film takes its own time to arrive at them. In fact, the first extended passage in which the lead uses his newly acquired physical prowess comes almost one hour into the narrative. Wise choice, since the wait is worth it.
Producer Sophia Paul recruited Jallikattu’s acclaimed stunt choreographer Supreme Sundar, a Mollywood veteran, for her film along with action director Vlad Rimburg whose CV in Hollywood includes his work on the TV series Lucifer. The result of this investment combined with the consistent writing and direction of Minnal Murali are action scenes that are an uncommon blend of tragedy, comedy and suspense.
Be aware though that fisticuffs and chases form just a part of the film.
Minnal Murali is designed as a mass entertainer, but it does not take the intellect of the masses lightly. Kurukkanmoola is a melting pot of good and bad, regressive and progressive attitudes, sometimes co-existing within the same person. It is a place where the outsider is described dismissively as “that Tamil guy” by a man who is not particularly evil, a woman does not necessarily view marriage as either inevitable or essential, men leer at the very woman against whose sexual morality they pass judgement, contempt is the automatic response to mental health issues, seemingly nice men treat women as property for barter, and kindness is never forgotten.
Barring a couple of individuals who are not given shades of gray (rightly so), no resident of Kurukkanmoola is painted as an out-and-out villain in the script – not even the antagonist, an impossible-to-hate tragic figure whose descent into crime is not absolved by the writers yet must cause the community to reflect on its own inherent prejudices.
The one grouse I have long had against new-generation Malayalam cinema is its persistent male-centricity. Stories headlining women are scarce in Mollywood. Minnal Murali does not break that trend, which is unsurprising I guess since it draws on the male-dominated Hollywood superhero-verse. The saving grace here is that the women in Jaison’s life are not clichéd damsels in distress waiting to be saved by him. Femina George as Bruce Lee Biji is, in fact, as crucial to his battle against his opponent as his own special abilities.
Minnal Murali is also that rare Malayalam film that is unequivocal in its condemnation of domestic violence. Shockingly for India’s most literate state, cinema emerging from it has often normalised or even humourised husbands smacking their wives. This one does not.
That said, one of Minnal Murali’s few off-key moments comes in a shot of Aju Varghese’s face right before he strikes his spouse. The exaggerated expression is almost comical, which is worrisome because intimate partner aggression by men has indeed been used as a source of amusement in earlier Malayalam films. Course correction follows in the very next scene, but Aju – an accomplished comedian who proved his versatility while playing a dishonest cop in Helen – is capable of better, and Team Minnal Murali should have known better.
In the rest of the film, Aju is on point, as is the massive cast that includes some gifted, respected and renowned artistes taking on even few-seconds/minutes-long parts. Seriously, could anyone have pulled off Dr Sambhashivan quite as well as our Mamukoya?
Tovino Thomas is identified by his innocent appearance and Everyman-ness, not muscle or an adherence to conventional notions of masculinity. He is an inspired choice for a superhero because it is only once you see Jaison step into his avatar as Minnal Murali that you realise the importance of the disconnect between the young star’s endearing persona and the body he has built for this role. Jaison cannot believe what he has become capable of doing, nor could I as a viewer, but that impressive physique and DoP Sameer Thahir’s camera angles ensure that the disbelief does not last long.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Tovino is Guru Somasundaram playing Shibu whose heartache seems to fill the actor’s eyes and his entire being.
Every member of the cast deserves a mention, but since space is limited, I will restrict myself to naming Arya Salim who plays Jaison’s spunky sister, Femina George who deserves a superhero film of her own, Vasisht who is delightful as Jaison’s nephew and ally, and Rajesh Madhavan whose turn as a junior cop is a masterclass in deadpan humour.
The other stars of this enterprise are musicians Sushin Shyam (whose background score for Minnal Murali must rank as one of the year’s best) and Shaan Rahman.
I confess I am not naturally drawn to Hollywood superhero flicks and have watched most out of a sense of duty as a critic. The exceptions have been Wonder Woman and Hugh Jackman’s solo outings as Wolverine. I am one of those viewers prone to making wisecracks about why Superman wears his underwear on the outside etc – sorry, devotees. Frankly, I am also tempted to ask how on earth Minnal Murali will survive that body suit in Kerala’s tropical climate – I do wish Basil and the writers had used their imagination to conjure up an adaptation of the mundu instead. Having said that, Minnal Murali works even for a cynic like me, because it knows how to laugh at itself, and above and beyond the bloodletting, it is all heart.
Although I would have preferred the referencing of American comics and Hollywood films in Minnal Murali to have stopped before that book lying on a fair ground in the finale and the villain seated in a Spidey-like position atop a crumbling edifice soon after (c’mon Basil, we got the point already!), although I would have liked to see more of Jaison/Murali in his mundu, it must be said loud and clear that this film is not a copy. It is an ode in the true sense of the word with an identity that is all its own – a true-blue Indian, all-out naadan (Malayalam for “local”) superhero saga.
You know you have entered a Kerala landscape as soon as the first word is uttered before the first image appears on screen in Minnal Murali – “Hallo, hallo” pronounced in precisely the way a Malayali would say it.
From an industry that lifted the curtain on 2021 with the sleeper hit The Great Indian Kitchen aka Mahaththaya Bharatiya Adukkala, Minnal Murali is the perfect Christmas gift: thoughtful, sorrowful and funny by turns, and teeming with hope. So tell us, Basil, when can we expect Minnal Murali Part 2?
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